It’s ‘Play ball!’ with taxpayer money

By Larry Elder

“Stop us before we spend again!”

Baseball owners, in effect, took this position in the recent game of chicken between baseball players and owners, a showdown that resulted in a settlement on the eve of the strike deadline. Texas Ranger owner Tom Hicks, who paid Alex Rodriguez $252 million over 10 years, now urges cost containment. “I think a majority of owners, including me,” said Hicks, “would probably like to have even stronger cost containment than we’re talking about right now. I think a lot of owners would have a preference for a hard salary cap like football has.”

The born-again Texas-Ranger-cost-cutter even managed to make Rodriguez feel guilty. “I would take a cut in pay – 30 to 40 percent,” said Rodriguez, “if it would make the game better. My main concern is baseball. When I have kids, I want them to enjoy the best game in the world. If I’m doing something financially to make the game better, I would do it.” But, the next day, Rodriguez recovered, “What I meant to say was that I love the game of baseball and I would do anything to help it. It was a dramatic thing to say. It wasn’t literal. I’m not ready to write a check.”

Unlike with most other strikes, the baseball public does possess a stake – and not just as fans and spectators. Taxpayers usually pony up the money to build baseball stadiums, induced in part by politicians’ phony claims of future economic benefit. But political scientist Charles C. Euchner says, “Local economies are very leaky. Money that you spend on a ticket or on a concession or something like that doesn’t just circulate throughout the city. Often it gets out of the city almost instantly.”

In addition to taxpayer benefits, baseball owners also enjoy a congressionally provided anti-trust exemption. In the NFL or NBA, for example, an owner may, with relative ease, move his team from City A to City B. Not so in baseball where, say, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles could block an owner who seeks to move his team to fairly nearby Washington, D.C.

The owners cry “poor mouth.” Yet the Boston Red Sox recently sold for a record $660 million. When an owner hangs a for-sale sign on a franchise, somebody, somewhere buys it. And since conglomerates became major owners, teams generate value in ways difficult to measure using traditional methods.

USA Today’s Walter Shapiro called a possible strike unpatriotic. He wrote that in 1942, baseball sought FDR’s advice on whether the game should continue during World War II. FDR urged baseball to stay in business because it boosts morale and provides diversion during wartime. “Nothing would be more cynical,” said Shapiro, “than if the ballparks were locked and empty on the anniversary of Sept. 11.

“Does anyone at the bargaining table care that soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan or poised for a new mission in the Persian Gulf region will be deprived of their baseball fix? Do the negotiators for the owners and players ever recall those tearful days last September when America took comfort in the resumption of baseball and ordinary life? And, most of all, if there is a strike, no one should ever fail to condemn the owners and players for their selfish red-light tactics in the midst of another war.”

Well, yes, and no. First off, President Bush told us to go about our daily lives, presumably strikes being a part of that. And 2002 isn’t 1942. Now Americans face a blizzard of leisure-time choices, including 500 television channels, DVD, Sony PlayStations, and various other sports including auto racing, professional wrestling, professional and collegiate men’s and women’s basketball, football and soccer. Football long ago knocked baseball off its perch as the national pastime. Now more of us watch the NFL than watch baseball. NASCAR ratings frequently surpass those of the baseball game of the week.

For all these reasons, the public threw up its hands. Down the road, maybe these saps – aka taxpayers – may balk at paying for stadiums, luxury skyboxes, parking concessions, tax abatements, and various other schemes that funnel taxpayer money to billionaire owners.

An ABC poll showed that only 28 percent of Americans called themselves baseball fans, the lowest level since the last strike ended in April 1995. It found that 75 percent of Americans couldn’t care less about the possible baseball strike, and that only 10 percent expect to miss baseball “a lot” if there is a strike. Americans sided with the owners, showing little sympathy for the average baseball player who now earns over $2 million a year.

So baseball settled. Yes, it feared the charge of lack of patriotism as we approach the anniversary of Sept. 11, but mostly, they feared losing money. Now, that would have been un-American.